Sometimes when he gets fed up of trying to get the arrow to work, to listen to him, he goes to the mess just by himself. He doesn’t really know how the contraption works, but sometimes, he fiddles with it and it plays music.
He catches sight of her maybe the fourth or fifth time he’s managed to get the machine to play. She doesn’t stay long and always leaves with a sneer when she sees him looking. “Turn down that infernal noise,” Nebula spits and turns on her heel to disappear back down the corridor, angry the way she always is.
He does turn the music down, but not off, the low melody chasing her as she goes. He thinks about that sometimes, the melodies caught in that strange box and what they must mean for Quill. Memories trapped from another time.
She keeps coming back. Standing in the hallway, pressed into the wall like she wants to be anywhere but there. She still comes back though. Almost every night. He’s figured by then that nighttime, or whatever passes for night in the dark of space, is best. The ship is quiet and the music echoes in the hall.
He’s seen Quill dancing to the music with Gamora sometimes. There’s a soft song that plays about halfway through the tape and he pulls her in when the deck is empty in the evenings, and they sway and sway and sway until the music stops and the song changes, and Gamora suddenly wakes up to what she’s been doing. She too leaves with a scoff and he wonders if it’s the way they both grew up. Sisters even when they clearly don’t want to be that for one another.
The dancing’s not really what he wants with her. She doesn’t look like a person who would like dancing. Or pretty necklaces or nice hats. So he lets the music play and waits. Pretends he doesn’t see her standing there, listening to it, the same as him.
He forgets about the music one night. Too engrossed in the arrow, with getting the pitch of the whistle just right, and he forgets to go to the mess. When he gets there much too late, she’s standing in front of the contraption, her back arrow-straight and stiff.
She gives him another of those hateful glares over her shoulder.
“How does it work,” she growls, angry, and he doesn’t know what to do.
He edges around her body to press the button to make it go, but instead of playing music, it just clicks. He tries again and there’s still only that click. She makes an angry noise in the base of her throat and turns on her heel to leave, pushing past him.
He’s seen Quill do it once, so he tries too, pressing the leftmost button in the row, and the case pops open, exposing the cassette inside. He flips it around like he’s seen Quill do, and closes the case. Presses the arrow button and the thing whirls to life and the music starts after a brief moment of static. This one has a nice sway to it, a welcoming sort of rhythm that he can get behind.
He thinks that maybe she’s stopped in the corridor, but he doesn’t turn to look. Doesn’t jinx it. Just stands there, listening to the music. The way the tempo builds and builds, the singer’s voice honey-smooth. It’s maybe one of those which Quill tries to get Gamora to dance to.
The song ends and in the brief silence before the next one starts, he hears a soft “thank you” from the hall over the static of the tape. He twists around to look, but she’s already gone, disappeared into the dark, the corridor empty where she must have stood. The new song swells around him, hopeful and soft.
That’s how it goes for a couple more nights. They miss a few because there’s a party at Knowhere, followed by a mass brawl at Knowhere.
The next time he makes his way to the darkened mess, she’s standing there like she’s waiting for something. He doesn’t think that she’d be waiting for him, so he coughs just to let her know he’s there. It seems like the polite thing to do. She turns to look at him, stiff and formal, her face pulled into a sneer. He sometimes wonders if she even knows how to make any other expression anymore. If she cares to try.
He steps into the mess and moves towards the music player, wanting to fill the silence, but her hand shoots out and stops him. He doesn’t remember if it’s the first time she’s touched him, but he stops moving, stilled by her touch.
Slowly, she opens her hand, the joints of the fingers clicking as she does. With a slight flicker of light, an image fills the space between them, hovering in the air, projected from the palm of her hand. There’s a ring of humanoid shapes standing in a circle. Still as the image flickers.
“My father wanted everything to be collected and cataloged and recorded.” Her voice is hoarse as it always is, but somehow lacking in her usual rage, as she continues. “He would wipe most of them after, or maybe save them in some databank or other, but he never took this one.”
The image begins to move, the figures still jerky and static, the film maybe corrupted by time or a faulty data transfer. The sound is clear though, and strange music fills the air. It’s alien and odd, moving high and low at unexpected intervals, jerking like the dance the shapes are doing, but it’s strangely beautiful too, once he figures out how to follow its otherworldly rhythm.
Intently, she watches as the figures move, bodies dancing in a way that humans can only hope to achieve, almost mechanical in their precision. Her dark eyes unblinking and focused as she watches the cloaks swirl through the air, barely discernible through the static of the film.
It’s unlike any dance he’s seen in the universe, even with all his travels. The figures coming in and out and in and out, footsteps making patterns in the sand they dance on. The footage is too old and worn to see any of it clearly enough, but they both hear the music. It swells, speeds up, the dancers matching its tempo.
As suddenly as it all began, it stops. The mess once again silent around them. The still image of the dances hovers in the air where the footage stopped, until that too flicks out, disappearing into her hand. A memory carefully tucked away.
“Maybe he did not think it mattered at all,” she says then. Whispered like a secret.
He reaches out to her then, touching her splayed-open metal hand. She flinches, but he doesn’t let go, pushing her fingers to curl into a loose fist, protective and hiding.
“It matters,” he says.
They stand there, in the dark and the quiet, his fingers curled over her metal ones, with their breath the only sound filling the room. With the dark of space and its millions and millions of stars still and beautiful and endless around them. The universe slowly pulsing with life and rhythm.